The bricolage of a person's random life experiences often reveals a higher purpose and, in retrospect, Rebecca J. Mercurio believes that higher purpose called her back to Buffalo to make the city one of the best places in New York state to give birth.
Mercurio, an Ignite Buffalo grant recipient, traded in the harsh Buffalo climate for a taste of New York City 20 years ago when she attended art school for documentary photography. She then went on to study yoga and Ayurveda in India, and Reiki, a form of energetic healing, in Japan.
Her studies of Eastern world bodywork led her to pursuing a massage therapy license and, once she received it, she moved to the Cayman Islands, where she lived for six years. But the feeling of island life closing in on her nudged the licensed massage therapist again toward New York, where she learned that her best friend was pregnant.
One day she asked Mercurio to be her doula, to which Mercurio said, "What is a doula?"
Many people still do not know exactly what the role of a doula is, according to Mercurio. Doulas coach women through many physiological, mental, and emotional progressions and digressions throughout a pregnancy, and serve as the intermediaries between physicians and expecting mothers.
Mercurio had enough hustling in New York; she was ready to bring her hustle to Buffalo.
Impassioned by the desire to empower and educate women about wholistic pre- and post-natal care options, and dismayed by the trauma she witnessed her best friend experience during a botched Cesarean section procedure, Mercurio incorporated her love of massage therapy into a much grander vision: a wholistic pre- and post-natal wellness center located at 140 Elmwood Ave. called Whole Nine Wellness.
Mercurio got certified as a doula first, then began helping women in the community who raised similar questions about the birthing process.
Beyond providing women a safe space and a low-risk, drug-free alternative to traditional hospital births, which carry with them traumatic implications for both mother and baby and heavy financial burdens on families (Mercurio said that hiring a doula costs $1,500, while an average epidural procedure is roughly $4,000), Mercurio holds postpartum support groups, prenatal yoga sessions, and movement, breath, and vocalization coaching--things that don't happen often on many labor and delivery floors of hospitals.
"You go into labor and delivery and it's the quietest floor, which is insane because birth is not quiet. Birth is howling and growling and roaring women," Mercurio said.
She also takes pleasure in coaching partners.
"The best part of my job is to engage the partner. To say to them, 'Come over here. Squeeze her hips. Look in her eyes. You're her person. I know what birth looks like, but you know her,'" she said.
Buffalo's little big town appeal is one of a few things that drew Mercurio back into the city; it's small enough for her to be able to know many providers and physicians by name, but dense enough to attract a large client volume.
"New moms need a lot, and there's just a big empty hole in society that is dropping new moms, so it's a super niche market that I've honed in on and not even on purpose," Mercurio said.
But her true purpose? Educating women about their choices and dismantling the fear and stigma surrounding birth and women's bodies.
"You talk to women about their birth stories, and unfortunately, the majority have a trauma around it, because they didn't have a voice, they weren't informed, nobody asked them what they wanted, nobody listened to what they wanted," Mercurio said. "They just sort of got shoved through a system and all of a sudden they were told their body couldn't do this thing that they thought they were made to do, and that has huge implications."
A niche skill set--the bricolage of her life experiences--is what has helped her break into a community which remained relatively unspoken for up until the last three years.
Now, she said she sees more people seeking out the help of certified doulas in Buffalo for at-home and natural births, and is hoping to see that number grow now that New York state will be expanding Medicaid coverage to doula services as part of its pilot program in March.
Her Whole Nine Wellness venture has even expanded to lending services to a freestanding birthing house, scheduled to open this month, inside of Buffalo's oldest home, the Coit House.
"I got into (the birthing community) at the right time. I got in at this time when it was just starting to grow," Mercurio said.
Mercurio plans on using her Ignite grant money to expand her Elmwood wellness center to encompass more services, which will help improve upon these experiences while lowering infant mortality and morbidity rates, and helping families through the process without unnecessary medical intervention.
"We're in a culture where it's normal to think, 'Oh, (those issues) are for women," Mercurio said. "No, that's for everyone."